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Historian Breaks Down What College Partying/Social Life Was Like Throughout The 20th Century

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I don’t have a lot to add to what this historian wrote in Reddit’s Ask Historians section. It’s long, but it’s really awesome/interesting. Definitely worth a read. I mean, you can’t just look at pictures of drunk guys throwing up on their balls ALL day, can you? Try and learn something for a Goddamn change you ingrates.

Anyway, here’s what the guy wrote, it’s great, and as you could guess fraternities play quite a big role in his explanations.

I’m a typical college student in America and I’m going to a party. What should I expect if I was in the 1920s, 40s, 60s and 80s? What were the differences/similarities?

Man, it looks like the mods have had to clear-cut this thread repeatedly, and there’s still an awful lot of really uninformed, speculative answers (that have tons of upvotes!) Why, askhistorians readers, why!!!

Anyways, as Nordoisthebest points out, the answer really depends on what kind of student, what kind of school, and what part of the country we’re talking about. But I think it’s still possible to answer this question in general terms, based on what other historians have written about “college” culture – with the caveats that what they usually mean by that is white, north-eastern, reasonably affluent college kids, and that these are generalizations, which might not hold true at every school, or in every region of the US.

A few things you need to understand first for all this to make sense:

Not all colleges and universities were coeducational – right up until the late 60s, many of the most prestigious colleges and universities were men-only and women-only. So parties were either single-sex, or they were very formal affairs – requiring the permission (and often the active cooperation) of the colleges or universities that these students attended. That means they would be well-supervised, arranged far in advance, and quite formal.

Until the 60s, college and university administrations exercised very strict control over students’ conduct and social lives: under the doctrine of in loco parentis, they assumed the same amount of authority over students that the students’ parents would have had – and they were considered responsible for policing the students’ conduct and behaviour in lieux of the parents. So the dorms they lived in had curfews, on-campus social events were well supervised, and students were penalized for things that we would not even consider an infraction today (being out after curfew, going on an un-chaperoned date, getting caught drunk, etc).

For most of the twentieth century, most campuses were dry: in all but a few states, the drinking age was twenty-one from prohibition on up to the early 1970s. Then in the 70s there’s a brief period were just over half the states experiment with a lower drinking age, but this changes in 1984 when Congress passes the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Since a sizeable chunk of the student population was therefore underage (and since colleges were responsible for policing student’s moral conduct), students were strongly discouraged from drinking, and alcohol was never provided on campus. Many states had special laws prohibiting bars and other drinking establishments within a certain distance of college and university campuses.

With that covered, let’s go decade by decade:

It’s a bit old, but Paula Fass’ the Damned and the Beautiful is probably still the best source on this. She talks at length about the importance of the rise of a new peer culture on college campuses in the 20s. Two of the main hallmarks of this were what’s called the rating-and-dating complex and the critical importance of fraternities and sororities on campus life. What does rating-and-dating mean? Well, it means that there was a clear social hierarchy on campus, which students all shared in and understood. College life during this period was a bit more like high school life today, in that rather than splintering into a whole bunch of different sub-cultures and sub-groups, students in one institution tended to share a single social ladder: there were definite “cool kids,” and everyone was ranked relative to them. Peer pressure and the rating system kept college social life extraordinarily uniform: everyone was expected to dress, talk, and behave in similar ways, or they’d become social outcasts very quickly. Participation in extra-curricular activities (sports, student government, frats and sororities) was key to this, and students basically policed themselves – high-rating individuals were only allowed or expected to date other high-ranking individuals, people who strayed outside what most students considered acceptable behaviour were ostracized.

So wer’e talking about a very status-conscious campus life, and one that’s rather formal: remember, we’re talking about single-sex schools mostly, so the only way to throw a real “party” of the sort that I assume you’re thinking of is to arrange for students from one (female) college to visit the students of another (male) college or university. This means that it basically only happens when a frat invites a sorority over for a formal mixer/dinner/dance, when there’s a campus- or class-wide prom or dance or other event like that, or when students get special permission to visit the other campus individually. In all of these cases, the event itself is pretty closely supervised and there’s reasonably strict rules of conduct, which the students themselves help to enforce.

So what would a “college party” kind of event look like? Well, most likely it would be a formal dinner/dance kind of affair, where people would dress up, eat, dance, and listen to music. Much more like your own high-school prom today than what we think of as a college party. Fraternity and sorority dinners would likely also involve quite a lot of speeches and other specific rituals too, but the point is that it would all be very formal and follow a set pattern – definitely not like the “house party” of later years, which is a much less structured affair. Knowing the right dance steps and enjoying the latest popular music (most likely some kind of jazz tune) would be critical, and being able to dance/talk with people in the right social “grade” over the course of the evening would be key.

Now, there’s also a few things about campus life in the 20s that we know shocked adults: college drinking, petting, and dating. So the formal events obviously aren’t the whole story. In terms of alcohol, students did drink (despite prohibition) – but it usually happened in frathouses. Frathouses got raided for having alcohol quite a bit, and fraternities sometimes got in trouble for having their members appearing out on campus drunk. But this was all drinking that happened within the frathouse – we’re talking about frat brothers drinking together, rather than throwing a big “party” and inviting outsiders to it. Drinking at the larger, formal kinds of parties and events was definitely frowned on.

As for petting and dating – both are new, and extremely controversial in the 20s. Dating, according to Fass “permitted a paired relationship without implying a commitment to marriage and encouraged experimental relations with numerous partners.” It emerged “in response to a modern environment in which people met casually and irregularly, and in response to new kinds of recreations like movies, dance halls, and restaurants, where pairing was the most convenient form of boy-girl relation.”

These sorts of casual interactions also encourage the development of petting – a term used to describe pretty much anything from a kiss on the cheek to under-the-clothes groping (but ruling out any actual sex/intercourse). Most often this is something that would happen on dates rather than at parties, but there are a lot of references around that time to students holding “petting parties” – where groups of students (already in couples) basically got together and all make out in the same room. Fass suggests this was probably a way for them to engage in this kind of activity while still demonstrating to their peers that they weren’t going “too far” – which would have ruined their reputations – and that (like pretty much all of this) the practice centered around frats and sororities.

So tl/dr for the twenties: Peer culture on campus is very conformist, parties were very closely monitored and structured. While students got away with some drinking/hanky panky, it was of relatively limited scope, and there were stiff punishments for people who went too far.

40s (no 30s?)
The experience of your typical college party would have changed quite a lot over the course of the 1940s, largely because the student population (and student’s priorities) changed significantly. The main reason for that is World War II. Like just about every other major institution, universities and colleges went on a war-footing: large numbers of students and professors alike were either drafted or joined the military voluntarily, and many of the students who were attending were also simultaneously in the military: their education was part of their training to become officers or specialists in the armed forces. So during the war, you’d see 1) a lot fewer male students in general and 2) a pretty big proportion of those male students who were around would have been in military uniform, and subject to military discipline/training at the same time that they were attending school.

So between that and the more serious atmosphere/scarcity of wartime, a lot of the campus socializing, events, and parties that had been the hallmark of student life in the 20s and 30s disappeared. Not that there weren’t still frats and sororities and stuff, it’s just that the student population who had time and energy to engage in this stort of stuff shrank – and a lot of these organizations came to be dominated temporarily by freshmen: kids right out of high school who were not yet 18, and who had time to do other stuff before they became eligible for the draft a year later.

After the war, we see a resurgence of campus social life, but it’s markedly different from what came before. For one thing, the GI Bill provided veterans with funding for a college education, so in the period right after the war, almost half of the (male) students on campus were former members of the military. As you can imagine, this changes the social dynamic quite a lot: as former members of the military, they’re less likely to take the rating-and-dating system, fraternity life, or the homecoming ball quite so seriously, and they’re more likely to drink/curse/have sex than earlier generations of college students.

Here’s where we start to see the development of a very different system of campus socializing that will become dominant from the late 40s through the early 60s: instead of rating-and-dating, students become much more focused on finding someone to marry, and instead of dating multiple people, they’re much more focused on “going steady” with someone (who in most cases they hope to ultimately marry). Dating, rather than fraternities and sororities, extra-curricular activities, and formal proms/dances, become the focus of campus social life. This has a couple of different effects:

It moves focus away from “official” campus social events. Since students are so focused on dating just one person, they’re more likely to go off campus, and to spend time together as a couple (or in groups of couples), than in large gatherings of all members of a given class/fraternity.

This means that students butt heads more and more often with college and university rules, which are specifically designed to discourage this kind of unsupervised “dating” type of activity – you see more students sneaking out after curfew or otherwise flaunting the rules, and there’s a definite sense that the students just don’t take the rules as seriously any more.

Students are having sex more often, and getting married earlier: the late 40s are the start of the baby boom, and the returning veterans who make up almost half of the college population during this period are the same ones who are having those babies. This is a period when people really prize and uphold the idea of a happy, domestic family life, so college and university social life really does become focused on finding someone to marry, and many more students are getting married while they’re still in school. It’s pretty hard, under these conditions, to keep telling students that they can’t go see their boyfriend/girlfriend without a chaperone, and it seems clear that a lot of these couples were finding time/space to have sex prior to getting married. But the key point really is that they all planned to get married.

So tl/dr for the forties is that while the rituals and rules of the older system persisted, students took them a lot less seriously, and got a lot more focused on dating, sex, and marriage. They appeared and acted more mature, and strove to set up their own careers/families as quickly as possible. Under these conditions, student parties were less formal, more relaxed, and not really “crazy” – you’d still have big dances, you’d still have frat functions, but the real focus of student life was no smaller-scale interactions between couples.

So throughout the late 40s/50s there’s this system of campus socializing that combines the rules/structure (and the in loco parentis system of discipline) that had been in place to govern student life in the 20s – but students themselves aren’t taking it nearly as seriously as they used to, and they’re much more interested in dating and going steady – plus in the fifties we get an increasingly youth-oriented consumer culture, and a high level of affluence that gives students a lot of other things to think about: cruising in cars, going to drive-ins, eating out at restaurants, buying the latest record, going to off-campus dances and concerts.

As you can imagine, this sets up a pretty serious tension between the strict rules and restrictions that colleges are trying to enforce, and the students’ own ideas about how they’d like to spend their own time. There’s this submerged tension on campus that manifests itself through student protests against curfews and chaperone rules, or more hilariously through the phenomenon of the panty raid. In the 60s, this tension becomes so pronounced that students start full-on refusing to recognize the authority of college and university administrators, and the whole system of in loco parentis rules and regulations basically collapses: students argue that they’re mature and responsible enough to make their own decisions, and colleges and universities find it is impossible to enforce old rules.

This has a massive effect of student life: suddenly you can actually go visit your girlfriend in her dorm room (something that would have been totally out-of-bounds before). The school no longer really has the authority to control what you do off-campus or even on-campus within certain limits. So this is where they “college party” in the sense that we think of it today really becomes possible: for the first time, students can go and do what they like, and not face severe disciplinary consequences from their school or from their peers. This coincides with everything else that’s happening during the 1960s: the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam war, and the growth of 1960s counterculture. Take a quick look at the Berkley Free Speech Movement or the Columbia University Protests to get an idea of just how much more students are able to get away with during this period compared to students in earlier years, and to see just how far some students’ values had started to diverge from those of their peers and older generations.

So it becomes harder to generalize about what a “standard” college party would have looked like during this period, because students’ interests really start to diverge a lot more. Some students might go to a political (anti-war, civil rights, etc) meeting, others might go to a rock-and-roll concert where they’d get drunk or smoke pot, others might just go on a double date to the movies. And the older-style fraternity/sorority model of more formal parties and rituals still persists. College social life fractures into a lot of different sub-cultures, and school administrators basically completely loose control of almost all of them. Where once it had been about either rating-and-dating or finding a husband/wife, college life becomes much more politicized, and much more focused on finding personal fulfilment: something that could involve just going to football games and homecoming dances, but might also involve going to a friends house and dropping acid, or going to a feminist consciousness-raising meeting. The key thing is that there are many options, and we can longer speak of a unitary “system” of campus social life, or of administrators really having any authority to control student life.

Gonna be briefer here cause I think I’m droning on a bit : )
Basically there’s a couple major innovations/changes that I think really alter student life in the 80s. One is that for much of the 1970s, well over half the states had a drinking age of less that 21, and drinking on campus became much more common/acceptable. Some colleges/universities even allowed students’ unions to open on-campus bars. Students got pretty accustomed to having alcohol available, but in 1984 Congress passes the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which forces most states to raise the drinking age within a few years. What this means is that a student population which wants and expects to drink is suddenly no longer “officially” allowed to, and colleges and universities are suddenly trying very hard to discourage student drinking. This leads to a lot of off-campus or illicit on-campus drinking, and especially to a lot of binge-drinking in a “house party” kind of environment.

The second major change worth mentioning is that by the 80s way more universities have coed dorms, something that was just starting to get implemented at the end of the 60s. By the 80s, it’s pretty commonplace and this really changes student social life – socialization and “party” type situations can take place within a single dorm building floor (and sometimes on a nightly basis!) rather than being something that needs to be carefully planned and arranged in advance, and it just becomes a fairly normal part of student life.

Edit: This post has got more attention than I’d expected (thanks for the gold, whoever that was!) – so I thought I’d add some more sources/recommendations for further reading, if anyone’s interested in learning more. Note that not all of these deal specifically (or just) with college life, though all of them touch on it:
Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful
Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat and Sex in the Heartland
Modell, Into One’s Own
Syrett, The Company He Keeps
Horowitz, Campus Life
May, Homeward Bound
Peril, College Girls

And of course the 90s were when the cargo shorts trend arose, and a great college social divide was formed. Those with pockets, and those with bids.

[via Reddit]


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